A New Side to Clement Attlee? Fresh evidence from British archives

The image of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in the historiography has often been one of a shy, rather reserved but efficient individual, who was primarily interested in carefully planned domestic reform in post-war Britain, but also had notable distrust of Communists in the country, especially as the ‘Cold War’ developed.

NPG x45166; Clement Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee by Vivienne

New archival evidence appears to suggest a new side to the Labour Prime Minister, who died 50 years ago this October – he was even more virulent in his anti-Communism than historians had previously assumed.

Various biographers of Attlee had been aware of his opposition to Communist activities and his firm support for tough counter-measures, and a number of intriguing pieces of new evidence have emerged in recent years that reinforced this. For example, in 2009, previously top secret papers released at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, showed that Attlee’s government was on the verge of introducing controversial legislation which would have equipped the Home Secretary with extensive new powers to ban British subjects going abroad. This would have included Communist Party members who were of interest to the State.

However, according to a new article by Dr. Dan Lomas, published in the latest edition of BBC History magazine (October, 2017), Attlee – who was Deputy to Winston Churchill in the wartime Coalition government (1940-45), and then served as British Labour Premier from 1945 to 1951 – was not only keen to deal decisively with any signs of Communist activity at home in Britain, but was also prepared to allow the extensive employment of sabotage, subversion and bribery by the British intelligence services in the countries of the Communist Eastern Bloc.

Clement Attlee

Dr. Lomas’s article is a companion to a recent similar article written by him for History Today magazine (September, 2017), and also provides readers with a great summary of some of the findings that he set forth in more detail in his recent critically well-received book Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments (Manchester University Press, 2016).

In his BBC History piece, Lomas refers to British Intelligence operations in Albania in particular. Attlee, for example, gave his full backing to ‘Operation Valuable’, an Anglo-American mission which was very much the brainchild of MI6, Britain’s foreign espionage service (otherwise known as the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS). In 1949, a team of well-armed anti-Communists, who had been trained in sabotage and subversion skills on the British-held island of Malta, was secretly inserted by MI6 into Albania’s Karaburun Peninsula. Not only were they tasked with setting up a network of insurrectionists within Albania, but their long-term objective was to bring about the overthrow of the Albanian Communist dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985). In other words, engineer either a coup d’état or a mass uprising.

In fact, Attlee’s post-war enthusiasm for employing intelligence and subversion to combat Communism was strongly present even earlier in his career and, despite being on the Left of the political spectrum, he ‘harboured a hatred of Communism’, an attitude he still held when he was Deputy PM in the war. This came to the fore when he became Labour Prime Minister in July, 1945. Although Attlee’s government was initially committed to the maintenance of friendly relations with the Soviet Union (USSR), the new Prime Minister became more and more alarmed by British intelligence reports about ‘subversion, sabotage and strikes’ sponsored by the USSR, and he also developed a notable distaste for British ‘fellow-travellers’ (those within the Labour movement and more generally at home who held secret Communist sympathies, including one or two of his own MPs). He was certainly very interested in the regular reports on such people provided to him by MI5, Britain’s domestic security service.

Attlee, Truman and Stalin

Looking at the wider global scene, Attlee grew to seriously dislike and even loathe Joseph Stalin, the totalitarian dictator of Russia, a figure he had distrusted during the wartime anti-Nazi Alliance between Britain, America and Russia, and whom he now saw as a very serious threat to Western post-war democracy. He also viewed Albania’s Hoxha as a similarly ruthless dictator, a kind of ‘mini-Stalin’. Indeed, it was no secret that Hoxha himself openly admired many of the policies of the Soviet leader, and arguably based his own Albanian police state, with its regular purges and brutal labour camp system, on the Stalinist model.

As Lomas notes, thanks to a range of recent document releases, historians can now see the full extent to which Attlee allowed his deep scepticism about Communism to shape secret British government policy during his time as Premier. This resulted, at first, in the creation of the ‘Information Research Department’, a highly secret branch of the Foreign Office which was responsible for mounting a major anti-Communist information offensive. Moreover, as the Cold War became even colder (and, on a number of occasions, nearly slipped into direct ‘hot’ war between East and West), Attlee became especially keen on covert operations and secret direct intervention in Communist countries, of which ‘Operation Valuable’ was a prime (but not the only) example.

Another fascinating dimension to this secret war against Stalin and the USSR involved British secret operations in Western Europe, too. According to Lomas, MI6 agents quietly buried weapons and radios across the continent to help prepare ‘stay behind’ resistance networks in case Stalin’s regime decided to mount a full-scale invasion of Western Europe.

As Lomas persuasively points out, as ‘more archive material becomes available’, so it becomes increasingly evident that there was a lot more to Clement Attlee than his role in creating the Welfare State, the National Health Service, and many new homes in post-1945 Britain. Attlee was evidently something of a Cold War warrior.

BBC History Magazine (October, 2017) is on sale now.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University.

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


This entry was posted in Archives, British history, European History, Public History, Russian History, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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